Sunday, August 3, 2014

Banjo Setup Challenges

The other day a banjo friend told me that she was confronting some “sound challenges” in her banjo, and as a consequence was debating trying a hide head as a way of coping with “too much” sustain and overtones, trying out an adjustable tailpiece instead of a no-knot, test driving different bridges and experimenting with hardware tension, as well as fooling around with the towel stuffed behind the head to see whether that might make a difference.  As my friend said, “My Whyte Laydie just loves to sing I guess--she's unstoppable.”

Setup challenges confront all of us, especially when we wake up one day and the banjo sounds so radically different.  We frantically mess with some of the easier variables to control – bridge placement, new strings, tailpiece tension.  And then we steel ourselves for more nuanced shifts in elements of the equation, always fearing that we’ll never get it quiet the way we want it, which was exactly the way it was before it decided to come out of whack. 

One of the first things I reach for when reacting to the need for setup adjustments – after tightening the head – is an alternative to whatever I have stuffing the back of the head to exert control over overtones.  A towel can exert a dampening effect, but a wine cork cut to size, or a piece of foam, or a portion of one of those painting sponges can make a difference in the way the overtones are tamped down.  To my wife Mary’s chagrin, I am always pawing through her sewing room garbage can looking for interesting textile remnants that I can roll up and try out on the banjo.  I have used socks, sponges of all sorts, pieces of foam, pieces of foam wrapped in soft cloth, cork; the process of experimentation is continuous.

Beyond the sort of dampening material you might use, I’d recommend toying with the position.  Shove the item close up to the neck/rim joint.  Move it an inch or two (or three) out, to right under the sweet spot.  Try it close to the bridge or toward the tailpiece.  Those experiments sometimes bear fruit.  Sometimes, they merely underscore the extent to which we as banjo players are, by definition, obsessive/compulsive creatures.  Lately, I’ve taken odd sized felt pouches that originally contained fine jewelry boxes, and inserted various pieces of foam or cloth or sponges in them, and inserted them under the dowel stick – sometimes to good effect, sometimes to no effect. 

I’ve also figured out that some banjos need more breathing space than others, so I’ve become more acutely focused on how much air is between me and the banjo pot when I’m tucked around it in a playing position. 

I remain a big believer in skin heads.  I tend to like the thicker skins than one can buy from the myriad of Pakistani based companies that export skins for drum heads.  I certainly preferred them to the thin and bleached calf skins that some of the big music stores catering to ld time players tend to sell.

I’ve placed skins on so many banjos over the last 20 years, usually for paying customers.  It is not that difficult – I’ve blogged about it in several places.  But it is a challenge, and can be a constant problem-solving process especially on vintage banjos with ovalized heads, eccentric Dobson-like tone rings, etc. 

I find that my banjos with skin heads react badly during the months we crank up the air conditioning.  I must be getting old and impatient because I now have plastic heads on my four banjos, having just a few weeks ago confronted the reality of mounting a skin head in the summer after an explosive rip sent a shudder up my spine while I was playing one of those banjos. 

I prefer Renaissance heads to fiberskin heads, but I’d gladly go back to an all skin format if I could be guaranteed by my Pakistani goat herding suppliers that they were uniformly cured skins that came with a “no explosive rip” guarantee.  Unfortunately, I believe that only the larger herders can offer those assurances, and then we’re getting into the question of whether free range calves give better skins than industrially raised herd animals. 

I prefer hardware that gives me more rather than fewer options.  No-Knots give me no options at all, and (with nylon) have the extra added attraction of making it impossible to tie bowline knots without using micro-surgical equipment and magnifying glasses.  I deploy them on my banjos, but they are not necessarily a favorite.  I do not like any of the conventional tailpieces with moveable top pieces except for the Fults tailpiece, which is pricey and intended for gadget loving bluegrass banjo players.  Were I to swap out my No-Knots, I’d go for a Fults before bothering with any of the other tailpieces largely because it is sensibly mounted very securely to the two hooks flanking the point at which a tailpiece is usually seated. It is a much more stable situation, and the tailpiece itself is engineered to offer some real fine tuning control over string angle.  ( 

If I want to mess with string tension I tend to try out different sized tailpieces.  I usually have a mess of 5/8 and 6/8 inch tailpieces on hand, and I’m a sucker for experimental designs.  My Most Favored Bridge these days is by Jeffrey Weitz. 

I have also enjoyed the impact of David Cunningham’s bridges:

I have experimented with Arthur Hatfield bridges, meant for bluegrass banjos, and with any range of other one-off designs.  I carved some of my own, but usually for extremely eccentric vintage banjos.  In short, I appreciate the real difference bridges, especially bridge heights (and mass) can make in sound and playability.  I keep about 4 dozen “designer” banjos in inventory and encourage students to toy with them to find their own favorites.

I generally keep my banjo hardware tightened, and the head pretty snug.  I find that playing a banjo for a week will jar things loose far more than one might think possible.  Simply tightening the nuts on the hooks can make a difference.  I prefer to make set up adjustments to the banjo – bridge, strings, tailpiece, nut – from a circumstance in which the head is on right tight, the nuts are snugged up in as uniform a manner as possible; I don’t go in for the “head tuning” machinery.  Just what I need, another piece of technology to tell me when I’m feeling what I ought to be able to feel by, well, feeling.

In the end, specialized tone rings such as the Whyte Laydie are fairly  temperament creatures.  I’ve had the hardest time finding a good place in terms of set-up for my Tubaphone, which I think is as sensitive and hard to please as the WL. 

I’ve found that one’s approach to setup is as critical as the setup itself. 

I’ve come to see setup as something impermanent, something that changes for any number of reasons whether one wants it to or not.  A player cannot say that they like their bridges so precisely tall and their tailpieces torqued down to X number of G force levels.  Things change, and banjos change especially, to the point that they vary more than voter allegiance across party lines.  I’ve come to see that as part of the intriguing character of the banjo.

Setup changes in response to a lot of variables.  So setup varies across measurable phenomenon such as ambient temperature, humidity, seasonal variation in the local pollen count, shifts in voting district boundaries, and the Presidential Popularity Polls.  I’ve come to see that as both the challenge and the beauty of a banjo – it’s never the same instrument two days in a row, and requires at least as much fussing over as a good breech loading flintlock weapon. 

I’ve also come to see it as an obligation to the banjo, as a routine drill of instrument maintenance that has to be performed at least on a weekly basis.  My rule is that I need to fuss with setup as often as I need to comb out my black lab Maggie. 

And in some ways I’ve come to view basic set up drills as one of the more loveable things about a banjo.  A guitar can be a living, breathing thing since a big old hunk of wood might shift and change with altered environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and so forth, but there’s only so much one can do to cope with that – like buying a case dehumidifier, keeping a half of an apple in the case compartment, or turning the guitar into kindling and taking up the trumpet.  But with the banjo, a player has a whole host of alternatives to act on, hardware to tweak, moving parts to move, screws to tighten, nuts and bolts to adjust. 

I’ve convinced myself that this is part of the banjo playing process that makes the instrument so unique, so much fun, and such a test of decision-making theory. 

I recommend that you allow me to cling to this reverie, to this delusional state, because without it I’d have to face the fact that my banjos need of the same kind of attentiveness as a newborn baby required, and diapering quickly, cleanly, and professionally was never my strong suit. 

More than you wanted to hear, but my friend’s plaintiff call about her Whyte Laydie got me thinking and I couldn’t stop.

Play hard,


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